Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Dive for cover!

A lot of the games that take my fancy these days tend to involve copious amounts of hot lead flying through the air. As in most shooters, the amount of bullets coming your way often outweighs the few that you can return before becoming a blood soaked rag doll, and so the logical decision to make is to run for cover. With the dawn of AI competitors who can shoot your testicles off from 100 metres, developers tend to feel that making the player the sole bullet sponge is a bit unfair, and so game environments now tend to be littered with convenient bits of debris, low walls and strategic corners. It has been this way for quite some time now but in recent years, these hiding places have become more than conveniences and now feature a core part of gameplay.

The first game that I remember utilising smart cover systems like this was Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. In the later incarnations of Solid Snake, he has had the useful ability to press himself up against walls. Inching up to a corner in this way allowed him to see what was awaiting him without exposing his fragile frame. From MGS2 however, if you had a gun equipped, he could also jump out from behind the corner and take a pot shot or two, before diving back in to safety. This was very handy, and something which I wanted to see in all games because it just seemed like such genius at the time. This was the start of something cool.

It was a year or two later when I noticed the concept of shooting from the safety of cover arise again whilst playing a Playststion 2 demo disc. The game itself was nothing spectacular, but it introduced two important things to me. Aiming from cover, exposing yourself (whilst still being attached, so releasing the button would hurl you back into safety) but also the concept of blind firing. Blind fire is something like a hellish lottery for your opponents. The protagonist simply sticks his gun out from cover and takes random shots hoping to hit something. Enemies advancing towards a player who is hidden in cover are often the the receiving end of panic blind fire, executed when the bad man is so close you are able to recognise his deodorant. This unfortunate soul would often end up riddled with bullets whilst the player sits there looking very smug, because he has survived an attack by using the law of averages (closer target = higher chance of punching holes in flesh). A similar system also marched along and in my opinion, saved the James Bond game, Everything or Nothing, from mediocrity.

The game that really kicked off the latest fad of cover systems, in my opinion, was Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas. The ageing hard man military writer's latest outings in Las Vegas employ a cover system that really drew me into the idea. The game was played in first person, but stand next to a surface and hold down the right mouse button, and your character would put their back to the wall, giving the player blind fire and aimed shot options from the sanctuary of cover. It was essential to use as enemies love one shooting you, still making the game very difficult.

Since Rainbow Six: Vegas, a whole lot of games have employed some form of cover systems that operate around the same principles. The idea has been stolen and manipulated so many times, it's hard to remember them all. The short list that springs to my mind includes Gears of War, Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, Army of Two, Uncharted: Drakes Fortune, and I am sure, many, many more.

The emergence of this much copied style in games seems to come with the disappearance of health metres. In most games now when the main character is low on health, the screen will go blurry, prompting the player to go and sulk in a dark corner somewhere as if the bullets in his back were a stitch needing to be stretched off.

Whilst hiding and poking out of cover to fire off a few rounds in a gun fight is a good idea, and a good step towards slightly more realistic situations in games, it would be nice to see an alternative system to come forward. A lot of the games coming out these days with this kind of system encourage a lot of retreating, and shooting sections can become a bit linear. Providing cover for places might also be crippling level design, as you will have to provide something to hide behind to make up for the AI's pinpoint accuracy. It is a very good idea, and a fun system to play with, but it is in danger of becoming very over used, and digging itself into a rut of repetitiveness.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

'Griefing'

In my last blog, I wrote about games where the computer was unfair, be it down to seemingly impossible situations or a cheating computer. This is not where unfairness in games stops though. It is now spreading to the players with the rise of online gaming. It was just a matter of time before some players gathered together and thought that the tears of others would taste sweet. It is often great fun to watch people 'griefing' in games, that is, making the experience very negative for another player, or several. Some people to it very well, in a funny way, others just do it to make people angry.

My first experience of 'griefing' was back in my first online gaming adventure, Command & Conquer: Renegade. On of the ways the players would gain money was for the team's tiberium harvester to go out and collect the fictional mineral and upon its safe return, deposit the crystals in a refinery, filling player's pockets at the same time. Some guy however thought it would be a brilliant idea to trap the harvester in the refinery so it could not escape. Normally the thing would act as if Stevie Wonder was driving it to it's destination, not stomping for anyone and usually was very happy to chew up any players that got in it's way. The way this guy managed to stop the thing in it's tracks was to get another vehicle and wedge it into the refinery so that the harvester would get stuck and not move. It may have been down to a clipping issue or something, but the one thing I was sure of was the amount of money the team was not getting. This put us at a very serious disadvantage and surprisingly, cost us the game.

Since my experience in Renegade, I have only seen the online hassling of players grow and grow. EVE: Online (I know I keep mentioning it, but an article about 'griefing' without including this would be missing a huge element) is very prone to players trying to peeve people off. It is after all a 'sand box' game that encourages the players to do anything they want. If this means bugging the other inhabitants who want to mind their own business. For example, one group of players has been striking out against the innocent miners who spend their days humping asteroids in exchange for ore. The interesting thing though is that these mining barges are in supposedly 'secure space' where there is a police presence. Funnily enough, it does not stop these acts of virtual terrorism. When the violent act from these people calling themselves 'Jihadswarm' starts a sort of distress call is sent out to Concord, the law enforcers. They do arrive and destroy all those involved in the random murder, but not until after the miner is floating in a puddle of his own frozen urine, deep in space. This is how a lot of people have fun in EVE, they take it from other people. Another act of mass grief this game has seen was when a virtual bank set up by a trusted player, suddenly had all of the money taken out and given to the founder, who made himself a cool 671 billion isk. If he were to successfully sell this on eBay, it would be enough to buy him a house in the real world.

Team Fortress Two, a fantastic online shooter released last year by Valve has seen a great run of abusive 'griefers' who have turned their efforts into a video that can be seen here. The group calling themselves 'Team Roomba' abuse glitches in the maps to get on everyone elses nerves often resulting in much hilarity. One of these glitch exploiting moments of pure gold was when they managed to jam the door to a spawn location shut, trapping the entire team inside. They would then hold the team hostage until they answered a geography based question, only releasing them on their happy little way when a correct answer was given. Another example of their fun involved co-operation with the opposing team. They would set up teleporters right in front of enemy sentry guns, meaning that when players used them, they would be teleported right into the line of fire of an automated death spewer. Other examples include building sentry guns outside of the visible map and teleporting other players behind fences, resulting in very humorous situations for spectators, but probably game breaking hell for the players.

The last example I will give here comes from a story that I heard last week from the internet (so it might not be true, but it's still good to hear). Apparently, in the game Burnout Paradise, if you lose an event in the online multiplayer, you can have a webcam take a picture of your crushed spirit and send it to the victor. One disgruntled man managed to portray his displeasure for losing to a little boy by having the game send said child a picture of his round hairy arse. Whilst it sounds very funny to everyone, it could well have traumatised the innocent boy, being forced to stare into another mans exposed crack.

Making misery for other people is not something that I condone, but it is something that all players will have to adapt to. Lets face it, at the end of the day, the world is full of people who would be more than happy to push a granny over, just to laugh amongst their mates. When this granny pushing translates to online games, the best way to deal with it is not to react, because like all bullies, the reaction of the player is what makes it all worthwhile.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Frustating moments

I am very proud of myself this week. I have proven that I have surprisingly little on at university at the moment, and that I spend far too much time playing games. I just unlocked the 'little rocket man' achievement in Halflife 2: Episode 2. For those of you that do not know what this means, you will probably think that I am an idiot in need of being committed for what the challenge involves. Put simply, to gain this award you must drag a garden gnome with you throughout the entire game. This means that you need to use the gravity gun to pull around a garden ornament, rendering you defenceless and looking silly.

It was not an easy feat as you can imagine. Freeing up my valuable gun hand to hold the happy little guy whilst being pursued by an army of aliens with guns and sharp claws is not the recommended way to play the game. Add to that his inability to stay in a doorless car, causing you to stop every ten seconds whilst being chased by a helicopter gunship, and you have a really frustrating challenge. It caused a lot of reloads of previous saves and a fair bit of cursing, but in the end I made it and the little pixelated note in the corner told me of my achievement. The only thing I achieved with this was bragging rights (only 1.4% of the player base has done what I did!). This was not compulsory, but it was a torturous, irritating challenge that had me hooked. It made me stop and think about other games though, where the challenges are unfair, difficult and infuriating, but also compulsory.

The first sequence that sprang into my mind was a little section from the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. This is a masterpiece of a game, that can be gotten through at a steady pace with no major obstacles. There was one section though that had me screaming into pillows and filling my mind with hatred. It was a climbing wall that had only certain areas that Link (the main character) could hold on to. At each side of the wall were spikes all lined up and ready to perforate the hero. To top it all off, the climbable section on the wall shifted from side to side only giving a very small window of opportunity for the player to make it from panel to panel. If you missed out on one of these wall transfer opportunities, you had the choice whether to be killed by spikes or fall damage, and then see if you have the mental capacity to try it all again. If Nintendo include sections like this in their games, it does make me wonder why they are surprised that Wiimotes get thrown/stabbed through television screens.

Dawn of War, a great series of real time strategy games based in the Warhammer 40,000 universe has developed a few annoying bits. The story driven campaign mode was replaced in Dark Crusade with a Total War style domination map, where your chosen faction would fight for different territories on a planet. When fighting defensive battles or attacking heavily fortified areas, the computer would not turn on the super AI that can rival a human's brain and out strategy you, but instead resort to cheating. The attacking AI, instead of being the equivalent of one player, would instead be two, and both would start with a base and units built. This resulted in a massive violation force heading straight to your base which had twice as many infantry and armour units than you would be able to build due to the game's strict unit caps. Battling an AI army that can send two super tanks (normally you would only be able to have one per player) to annihilate everything inside your once secured base is not fun. These seemingly impossible skirmishes become real grinds of building units to go and fight the force outside which can often turn into a micro management stale mate.

Frustration and Eve Online go hand in had. One minute, you can have a nice shiny super ship that you spent months training and saving for, only for some ravenous space jerk to pull up along side you, turn the hull into Swiss cheese and scoop your corpse for the 'after party'. Eve is full of these little moments, when someone else in the game will very happily ruin you hundreds of man hours worth of work, for five minutes of their joy. At the moment, there are a group of players on a campaign to destroy every mining ship they come across, calling it 'Jihadswarm'. Losing stuff that took you so long to acquire, even in a game, is very frustrating, especially if you can not reload a checkpoint to fix the damage.

Frustrating parts occur in the vast majority of good games. I am convinced that it is video game law, that levels which have a water theme are the harder more irritating sections (thinking of the Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time specifically). It's these little bits that can disrupt the flow of a game which stop players from breezing through and completing it fast. If steadily paced throughout a game and not too impossible, then they can work to great affect, and hopefully not make you go and look up what the best knot to tie a noose is.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Plots holes and things that don't make sense

I appreciate that realism in games is not essential and very often makes the experience more fun, but it can be quite interesting to think about. There are quite a few games out there that have big gaping plot holes in that are not explained, or if they are, quite poorly. There is also the line of things that happen in games that very often make you think 'eh?' When talking about these things, I do not mean weird stuff as in the fact that the main characters might be a bear and bird duo (Banjo Kazooie Three will surely be awesome), but more along the line of bottomless pockets.

Speaking of which, I do find it vaguely amusing that a main character can pick up rifles, rocket launchers and packs of explosive, but still be as maneuverable and nimble as a greased up naked man. I suppose that technically, in first person shooters, you do not always see the protagonist, so he may have a massive back pack, or entourage of slaves carrying his vast stashes of gear. The trouble arises in games such as Metal Gear Solid, when you have Solid Snake in a skin tight (man) cat suit, but still being able to carry about three different rifles, a ton of C4 and a stinger missile launcher. Some games try and tackle the unrealistic bottomless rucksack that the player seems to possess, by limiting you to only two weapons. Whilst this makes the game more challenging and realistic, it does take some of the variety away. It does however explain where you are carrying your weapons, rather than leaving the player to guess where Snake could possibly hide so many long hard rockets that can not be seen by the human eye alone.

Another interesting thing that seems to plague games is the instant medical courses that main characters seem to have attended. I suppose if you are going to places that always seem to have a random abundance of identical medical packs that can treat anything from bullet shot wounds to broken bones, it would benefit the character that they would be able to administer the treatment just by walking over one. The one game that sticks in my mind for doing it differently was Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater. In this game, if they player were injured, they would have to go to a medical screen that showed in detail the level of Snake's wounds. It even went as far as telling you if the bullet was stuck in the wound, or if it went clean through. This meant that the player had to pick up lots of different components to med kits and store them in the bottomless pockets of Snakes camouflage. Whilst it was an interesting change to the process of healing, it was a bit tedious applying all of the medical supplies one by one. Also, a game where the lead character can bleed to death if you have not treated him properly seems a bit unforgiving and mean.

Now as far as plot holes are concerned, again, it is not really such a big issue, but sometimes they really play on my mind. For example, in Crysis there is one section where you start to get swarmed by aliens. It looks like a tough fight, but then randomly, out of no where, jumps out a character that was dismissed as dead near the start of the game. On top of this, he has a weapon that he apparently ripped off of a gunship, and converted it for hand held use. This made me stop and my journalistic mind wanted to start firing questions at the pixels on my screen. It was just so random and unexplained how a ship mounted ice cannon could be dismantled and re-assembled into a fire arm by some grunt in the field.

On a lesser note about the plot holes in games, is just about every Mario game ever created. The plot for the vast majority of them, is that Bowser, the dinosaur, kidnaps the princess of the mushroom kingdom. There is no explanation as to why at all. He just seems to kidnap her and then wait for an obese man who is good with pipes and collects coins to come and take her back. Seriously, what kind of evil genius is Bowser if he kidnaps a princess with obviously no motive. Perhaps off screen there are some awkward dino love scenes that Nintendo wanted to play down to make the game more acceptable. Then again, when they tried taking the plot in another direction, they had Mario cleaning up graffiti for a game, perhaps its good they stay with the familiar situations?

Plot holes and general (to quote most internet forums) 'wtf' moments are good for games. It does not always need to make sense if it is fun. At the end of the day carrying a tank on your back whilst trying to win back a princess who can not seem to stay un-captured is as good a reason to play a game than any other.